Snow is falling in New York City today, meaning Mayor Bill de Blasio’s skills as a manager are again being tested. While less than a foot of snow seems more like a quiz than a test, the new mayor is still in his probationary period. Everything carries a little more weight.
But although de Blasio and the city are still getting used to each other, some clear themes of the de Blasio era are emerging just thirty-four days into his mayoralty (one-third through the first 100 days, but who’s counting?):
1) Elections matter, a lot
The de Blasio administration has moved very swiftly to change policy—like dropping the city’s appeal of the stop-and-frisk program, ending the NYPD’s impact program, pursuing a new law to expand paid sick leave and signaling less financial support for charter schools. None of these moves were surprises, as they’re what candidate de Blasio campaigned on, but that’s precisely the point: he promised a break with the Bloomberg era, and that’s very much what we’re getting.
2) It takes him a long time to make very safe personnel choices.
Word is de Blasio is going to make a slew of appointments this week, which is good news, as the pace of the transition has begun to worry even his allies, what with de Blasio’s first budget due soon. The slow pace would seem to confirm the notion that management is not the new mayor’s strongpoint, but the names he has settled on are such veteran, establishment players that he’s insulated himself from any mainstream criticism that he’s not steering straight. De Blasio says he’s taking a long time because he wants to be sure he’s naming the right people to the job. Some on the left are hoping to see a few inspiring choices among the next batch to strike a balance between de Blasio’s need to demonstrate that the city will be well-run (by installing Bloomberg and Giuliani veterans in key posts) and the desire for change that the voters expressed by electing him.
3) Does New York have a new “fucking steamroller”?
Eliot Spitzer infamously called himself a “fucking steamroller,” a description of the take-no-prisoners approach that ultimately undercut his governorship even before we learned about the call girls and the black socks. De Blasio would never say anything so indelicate. But his role in the election of ally Melissa Mark-Viverito as speaker and his announcing a plan to expand sick leave via legislation that most of the City Council hadn’t yet seen made it clear that de Blasio—who often mentions the size of his electoral mandate—is not shy about using power aggressively.
While there’s no evidence yet that the mayor is vindictive (so far we’ve not uncovered an e-mail reading “Time for some traffic problems on the approach to the Holland Tunnel… er, I mean, more traffic!”) people in the advocacy world are very careful about saying anything critical of the new mayor lest they tick him off. And the AIPAC incident suggested that de Blasio’s vow of transparency is a secondary priority to personal ideology and political calculation (his rip-roarin’ pro-Israel speech was laced with both).
4) Like Bloomberg, he makes bold promises.
Mike Bloomberg famously promised to substantially reduce homelessness and poverty, and he notably failed on either count. In the twilight of the Bloomberg mayoralty some wondered if his successor would be so bold/foolish as to make similar big promises. It appears de Blasio is that bold/foolish. His goal of zero traffic fatalities—and his resetting of NYPD enforcement priorities to accomplish it—is very ambitious. Like Bloomberg, he’ll get credit for trying. But the city’s progress will depend on millions and millions of driver-pedestrian interactions over which the mayor has no control, and will be monitored by an aggressive set of advocates.
5) That inequality stuff? He meant it.
It’s typical for politicians to dial back their rhetoric when they get into office and move from, to paraphrase Mario Cuomo, the poetry of campaigning to the prose of governing. But far from de-emphasizing his campaign theme of the tale of two cities, de Blasio has continued to stress inequality at every juncture. Those who were skeptical of de Blasio’s commitment to that cause must be feeling a little more convinced that he meant what he said. By sticking to his guns on the universal pre-k (UPK) tax, forcing Governor Cuomo to go from lukewarm interest in the idea to support for a statewide version of it and then to promise to give the city a “blank check” to pay for it. Even if the tax doesn’t get done, the mayor has already shown the logic of his refusal to consider Plan Bs to pay for the plan over the course of his campaign.
Of course, with forty-seven months remaining in his current term, there’s still plenty of time for de Blasio to prove everything I’ve written above as totally off-base. Over the next few months, we’ll see the remaining appointments, how he navigates the UPK endgame, his approach to getting a budget passed and what kind of deal he strikes with the municipal workers’ unions. When today’s slushy stuff is pushed to the curb, bigger tests await.
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